The ‘plebs’ row is a mere sideshow to destructive Tory incompetence

Nothing will divert David Cameron and George Osborne from their great enterprise – an austerity to wither the state

Saturday 20 October 2012 12.17 BST

Former chief whip Andrew Mitchell
Whether the former chief whip Andrew Mitchell called police plebs or not doesn’t matter – people believe he did. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Did Andrew Mitchell say the dread word “plebs”? After a long month of failing to deny it, it hardly matters. Today a full set of monster headlines shriek David Cameron‘s class calamity. The police wrote it in their official log and that’s who people believe. Plebs never sounded like a word police officers would invent in a stitch-up.

According to the Daily Telegraph deputy editor, Benedict Brogan, Mitchell’s fellow MPs believed it because they often heard him use the word in everyday conversation. That’s all we need to know – and everyone knows it already. That’s how they think and how they talk. We all know it’s true because that’s how they govern – not for “the other half”.

There are truths and myths – and sometimes the myth wins because it represents a truth. Margaret Thatcher never quite said “there is no such thing as society”, but she nearly did, she might have done and she acted as if she thought it. So, to her enemies, it came to symbolise all she stood for.

Cameron so badly lacks social antennae to warn him how his class looks to most voters that he failed to know by gut instinct what most people saw: the moment “plebs” was out, Mitchell was Ebola to be cast out before he contaminated the whole tribe. Those around Cameron who called it a gaffe or a faux pas utterly failed to understand that most people say “fucking” when angry, only this tiny cadre of upper-class yahoos ever say or think “plebs”. With that one word Mitchell, the silver-spooned Lazard’s investment banker, let slip the dogs of class war.

The curious incident of George Osborne’s first-class train ride only matters because it plays on the same story board. “We’re all in this together” doesn’t travel with plebs, but pays £189.50 to avoid hoi polloi. If chancellors rarely go second class, that’s beside the point. For the added luxury of parking his bottom on an exclusive seat, he spent more than two and a half times what he makes unemployed people live on for a whole week, for food, heating, travel, everything.

After Osborne’s benefit cuts, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies says are almost without international precedent, he plans to take yet another £10bn from those with the least. Disability benefits are next, worse cuts to the poorest households, while he eases top taxes for the people like him and Cameron in the world of mega-wealth. That insouciance is what makes them unfit to govern, unfit to decide who suffers most in these hard times.

Beside that imagery of class conflict, their comical ineptitude is only a sideshow. Born to rule? Whatever happened to the playing fields of Eton? Far from winning the battle of Waterloo, these scions turn government into Napoleonic defeat, with no enemy more dangerous than their own incompetence. They trip over their own shoelaces before they reach the battlefield, double fault all their own serves, knock themselves senseless before they leave the blue corner.

Learning nothing, they get worse with every passing month: Cameron’s energy price bungle defies explanation, beyond carelessness, ruled by an indolent arrogance that can’t be bothered to consult anyone. From badgers , buzzards and forests to pasties and caravans, details bore them. The NHS will sink them.

In the grand pile-up, it only added a hint of tabasco that Osborne was travelling on the west coast mainline, the contracts for which were mangled partly due to his Whitehall cuts in senior staff. Resurrecting (Etonian) Sir George Young as chief whip reminds us it was he who dashed to privatise rail chaotically in the first place. Surely no scriptwriter would dare add in that 1982 British Rail poster of Young and his children with BBC presenter Jimmy Savile?

But don’t be fooled: on the big things, they care. Follow the money, follow the dogma. Nothing has diverted Cameron and Osborne from their great enterprise – an austerity to wither the state and harrow the ground where it once stood. Anarchic creative destruction is not collateral damage, it’s part of the purpose. That louche, laid-back lackadaisical air is only the affectation of Flashman politics. The “Thrasher” Mitchell interlude reminds us that however badly their government ends, havoc for others is an experiment without personal risk to them.

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